How to use translation to learn a language

how to learn any foreign language

One of the most prevalent beliefs among language learners nowadays is that when you’re trying to learn a new language, your native tongue should be relied on as little as possible.

According to this belief, the language you grew up with is often a form of “negative interference” when trying to acquire new ones, and so it is best to avoid this interference altogether by keeping native language use to a minimum.

To this end, we see many learners committing themselves to Skype conversations that are 100% in their target language, creating image-based flash cards, and even using single-language dictionaries, where definitions of words are not translated, but are explained in other words in that same language.

Such non-reliance upon translation from or to one’s native language is certainly a worthy goal—and the above methods are good ways to go about it—but when I see learners go to such great lengths to avoid translation on principle, I can’t help but get the feeling that they are avoiding something that potentially could be a great benefit to them.

Why Translation Gets No Respect

Of course, it is not the fault of the learner that translation is so maligned a concept nowadays. One of the foundational methods of foreign language teaching, known as the Grammar Translation Method is still synonymous today with endlessly reading and rewriting mindless sentences from one language into another, in order memorize grammar rules. This method of defining words and phrases in one language by comparison with another has purportedly been around for hundreds of years, and is still the method seen in many textbooks today. The downfall of this perhaps most traditional of traditional methods is not that it is ineffective, but that it is often dreadfully boring.

Other methods were later developed in an attempt to introduce something more dynamic to the language learning experience. In particular, a method known as Total Physical Response, or TPR was developed that eschewed translation entirely in favor of creating one-to-one correspondences between the target language and the living world. When the teacher would say the target language word for “arm” or “leg”, students would be expected to correctly point to the respective body part.

Translation Will Always Be Necessary

As well-intentioned as TPR is, however, I would argue that it still cannot overcome the benefits of translation as a tool. While it is easy to associate the Greek, French, or Hungarian word for “arm” with your actual, physical, arm, it is much more difficult to associate words for abstract concepts like “democracy”, “nostalgia”, or “grief” with any single, physical object in the real world.

And this is exactly why drawing connections between your first language and your target language can be so useful. As an adult speaker of a language, you have an advantage that no “critical-period” age child could ever have: you possess an entire mental database of interconnected concepts, memories, and life experiences that have already been codified into a single language. As such, you don’t need to re-learn the concept of love when you learn it’s corresponding word in another language. With the help of translation, all you need to do is associate the native word—love—with the new word—say, amore—and the job is essentially done.

How Translation Can Reveal a Language’s Secrets

Translation is a necessary and useful part of language learning because it can also reveal important details about how two compared languages operate.

For example, any human language has the capacity to express the following idea:

I’m going to the beach with Maria, because today it is very hot.

Despite the fact that this phrase can be expressed in any human language, the syntax and vocabulary used may vary greatly from one language to the next. These variations, dependent on the distance between two languages, can only truly be revealed through translation.

For example, let’s look at the same phrase in two linguistically “close” languages, Italian and Spanish.

Vado in spiaggia con Maria, perché oggi fa molto caldo
(I go to beach with Maria, because today does very hot)

Voy a la playa con Maria, porque hoy hace mucho calor
(I go to the beach with Maria, because today does very hot)

Comparing these phrases through translation reveals that the vocabulary and syntax of the two languages correspond on a near one-to-one basis.

In this situation, a native speaker of Italian who is learning Spanish (or vice versa) could benefit greatly through regular use of translation, because both languages are so similar to one another.

Let’s look at two more distant languages: Italian and German

Vado in spiaggia con Maria, perché oggi fa molto caldo
(I go to beach with Maria, because today does very hot)

Ich will zum Strand mit Maria, weil es heute sehr heiss ist.
(I want to-the beach with Maria, because it today very hot is)

Translating between these two languages reveals that they are structurally different, but contain some similarities in terms of vocabulary and word order.

In this scenario, a native speaker of Italian who is learning German (or vice versa) would have some difficulty in translating from one language into the other. However, he would still benefit from translation, as repeated exposure to the syntactical differences will help him to internalize the patterns of the target language.

Lastly, let’s look at two very distant languages: Italian and Japanese.

Vado in spiaggia con Maria, perché oggi fa molto caldo
(I go to beach with Maria, because today does very hot)

今日はとても暑いから、マリアさんと海に行きます
Kyou wa totemo atsui kara, Maria san to umi ni ikimasu.
(Today very hot since, Maria with sea to (I) go)

Here, the problems that we saw between German and Italian have been compounded. Japanese and Italian have completely different word orders, and they do not share any similar vocabulary.

Here, a native speaker of Italian who is learning Japanese (or vice versa) would have much difficulty in directly translating from one language to the next. As with German, however, a regular “training regimen” of translation from and to both languages would serve any learner in deciphering exactly where the syntactical and lexical differences lie, and eventually help him or her to memorize the mental operations needed to “turn” an Italian phrase into a proper Japanese one.

By now we have discussed:

  • Why translation is a necessary part of language learning.
  • How translation can help you determine the syntactic and lexical relationships between two languages (among others).

Now we just need to discuss how, exactly, you should go about incorporating translation into your own learning routine.

The Right Way to Translate

As I mentioned before, translation is a tool that can reveal to you how two languages convey a single message in completely different ways.

Every thought conveyed through language must be manipulated and re-organized by the semantic, syntactic, lexical, and morphological rules of that language before it can be reborn as a correct, grammatical sentence in that language.

To truly familiarize yourself with these rules in both your native language and your target language, it is essential that you engage in a technique that I call “bidirectional” translation.

That is:

  • 1
    Translation of a L2 (target language) text into your native language. This is done to help you fully understand the content of the text.
  • 2
    Retranslation of your “new” L1 translation back into L2. This helps you correct your own mistakes, see gaps in your comprehension, and to think the the target language.


Repeated practice of translating and retranslating a single text back and forth between two languages will help you to learn to think in terms of the overall message that you are trying to convey, without getting hung up on the individual words or structures that you will require to say it.

Of course, don’t just go around completing bidirectional translations of any texts that you can find. You want to devote your translation time to texts that are:

  • Short (between 100-500 words)
  • Interesting to you
  • At or slightly above your level of proficiency

Such practice will be of particular benefit to you during the initial (pre-intermediate) phase of learning a language, as you will gain familiarity with the most common structures of your target language more quickly and easily.

how to learn any foreign language


Use the Tools Available to You

My hope is that this article has shown you how your mother tongue can be a huge boon to your language learning, instead of the hindrance it is often seen to be.

The key to using your mother tongue effectively is through efficient application of bidirectional translation, whereby you translate and retranslate short, useful texts back and forth between languages in order to master the internal structures of your target language.

Remember to start simply. Learn how to turn short phrases in your target language into your native tongue and back again, and then move on to the more difficult, the more challenging, and the more complex. With time, you’ll find that no matter what message you need to convey in either language, you’ll be able to communicate the message holistically, rather than word by word. It is at this point, when you’re no longer stymied by the mental acrobatics of target language grammar and syntax, that you’ll truly be able to begin mastery of the language.

If you're interested in learning more about my bidirectional translation method, I'll be discussing it in further detail during my talk at the Polyglot Conference in Thessaloniki, Greece on 29 October 2016.

Stay tuned and happy language learning!

Written by Luca Lampariello


  • Walace Gonçalves says:

    Luca, I want to thank you for all you’ve been doing for me, the main reason I started to learn a language was because I could see you speaking ten languages with ease. I’m finishing my english “course” and I want to learn Spanish and I certainly will use your methods. So, that’s all. Thank you again 🙂

    • Luca Lampariello says:

      Hi Walace, thanks SO much for the lovely words, I am glad my blog has pushed to learn English and above all make you believe in your potential. Good luck with English! Luca

  • Teodor Kalamov says:

    Hi Luca,

    You are a great inspiration and now I am studying my second foreign language mainly built on the principles you adhere to, but I want to ask you: As I am implementing your method, myself, with my second foreign language, how long should I focus on the target text per day before I translate it at the end of the cycle? Especially if it is a short and very beginner one.

    Cheers!

    • Luca Lampariello says:

      Hi Teodor,

      thanks for the question!

      I think you should focus as much as you want, as long as you fully understand it.

      I would go like this:

      First day

      1. Listen and read it at the same time
      2. Understand it by comparing it to the text in your own language or by looking at vocabulary + grammar explanations (if you are not using ASSIMIL), mark words you don’t know
      3. Listen and read again

      Potentially, listen to it a few more times.

      Overall for a very short text of, say, 10 lines, all this should not take you more than 10-15 minutes

      You can go back and review it a couple of times the following 2 days before translating it back

      Hope this helps!

      L

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  • Fronkster says:

    Hi Luca,

    I have been learning German for two years at school. But I feel that even in a class of less than 10 students I’m not advancing very far in learning the language. Our teacher has us learn the vocabulary for each unit rigorously using an online flashcard thing called Quizlet (maybe you’ve heard of it). There’s a feature called Learn which asks you to translate a term from one language to the other, but the problem In have with this is that it is hard to learn due to lack of context.

    I prefer using Duolingo to learn German, which has rapidly taught me German words & grammar rules by asking me to translate them in a contextual sentence; eg. it would have me translate the English “He is drinking the juice” to “Er trinkt den Saft”, teaching me the conjugation of the verb “trinken”, the gender & meaning of the German word “Saft” and also teaching me about the four different cases (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative) all by just translating one sentence.

    The problem is, since I’m using Duolingo outside of school it doesn’t match up with the school curriculum and although I have shown it to my teacher they have not really considered using it. Any ideas on how it could learn the school curriculum faster, while still using a contextual translation method?

    Also, my German is pretty bad, but would I be right in saying that a better translation of “I’m going to the beach with Maria, because today it is very hot” to German would be “Ich will zum Strand mit Maria gehen, weil es heute sehr heiss ist?

    Thanks so much for all your useful tips thus far.

    • Adou Franklin says:

      Salut Luca, je m’interesse depuis quelques temps a votre methode pour apprendre l’anglais. J’aimerais savoir si les series AWAKE des Temoins de Jehovah sont excellentes pour les traductions. Merci, et j’espere avoir une reponse de vous. Bonne journee

  • Heléna Kurçab says:

    Love this post, Luca. I promote a similar “Think ‘ideas’ not ‘words’ ” approach to my students. Good to know this agrees with the Master of learning languages, that you are. Greetings from Madrid.

  • Вад says:

    Hi, Luca. Your words below seem to me to be very important, because they express the reason of translating very precisely.

    “As an adult speaker of a language, you have an advantage that no “critical-period” age child could ever have: you possess an entire mental database of interconnected concepts, memories, and life experiences that have already been codified into a single language. As such, you don’t need to re-learn the concept of love when you learn it’s corresponding word in another language. With the help of translation, all you need to do is associate the native word—love—with the new word—say, amore—and the job is essentially done.”

    I am Ukrainian, learned German at school and in University, aber Deutsch ich beoberte hauptsaechlich dank Selbstbelehrung. Ich spreche und schreibe mit vielen Faeller, aber ich lese deutsch ziemlich gut.

    As an adult I decided to study English. My vocabulary (passive) is about 10 to 12 thousand words.

    Now I prcatice understanding spoken English. A year ago I couldn’t understand any meaning (practicaly zero) by hearing, although understanding of the same text by reading was 100 percent.

    I completely agree with you that the advantage of being adult must be used. (Especially by me – I’m over 60 🙂 )
    Several month ago I started learning Turkish ( reason – curiosity). Without any textbook. Just short dialogs and related text with translation in Russian.

    It’s extremely interesting to постепенно самому начинать понимать, как организован с точки зрения грамматики турецкий язык.
    Sorry, I got tired fremde Worte zu errinern.

    Nochmal vielen Dank fuer Ihre Arbeit und sehr wertvolle Rate.

    • Alexandr Brojdo says:

      “aber Deutsch ich beoberte hauptsaechlich dank Selbstbelehrung.”
      надо бы подкоректировать..

  • albertde says:

    I am fluent in three languages: English (mother tongue!), French and Dutch (the latter two by actually living in places speaking these languages) and I can get around to some extent in German, Russian and Spanish . To me, in a French class for English-speaking students, pointing at an arm and saying “bras” in French is harmless. Knowing human nature what the students do is think “that’s an arm”, so they are translating anyway. I personally have no problem with learning the names of concrete objects by translating their names: they exist outside of any linguistic reality. Do you really want to read a dictionary definition of some animal in a foreign language to figure out what it is? Because at some point if you are really fluent in a language, you will end up using a dictionary for that language. In any case if the animal is some obscure creature living in an out-of-way part of the world the word is probably the same.

    For concepts, the situation is different. There is no reason “überhaupt” (I am using here a Dutch word borrowed from German) for concepts in one language to map into another. English has “home”, Dutch “gezellig” and “sympathiek”, German “gemütlich” and “überhaupt”, French “sympathique” and Spanish “simpático”. Translation in this case is pointless. These concepts are really untranslatable because they are a reflection of how native speakers of the language think. The only method that works is examples: listening to conversations and seeing how live native speakers conversing are using these words.

    There is a third situation. French has a lot of “expressions consacrées”: “à l’aide de”, “au nom de”, etc. Because of the preeminence of the language, equivalents are readily available in German and Dutch but not in English, where these expressions sound stilted. So then translation involving English just complicates matters.

    Finally there is grammar. Both German and Russian use cases similar but not identical to Latin. In all three languages, the case of nouns following prepositions has to be memorized. Some prepositions in all three languages use the accusative when motion/movement is involved and another case otherwise, (for German, dative; for Russian, it varies). Again English is no help here.

    • jay beacham says:

      You are right.
      überhaupt in German means ‘overall’, ‘all inclusive’
      “gezellig” and “gemütlich” mean closely the same.
      while French “sympathique” and Spanish “simpático” and Dutch “sympathiek”
      all mean roughly the same: congenial, amiable, friendly
      depending on the situation they are used in.
      So learn some basics and live the language among native speakers and figure out the correct usage?

  • João lucas says:

    Hey Lucca great article. I’m native speaker Portuguese and I’ve learning English and Spanish. So, when I am reading some articles in English I translate for my native language in my mind. is it a problem ? Because I understand what I am reading or listening, but I continue translate it in my mind.

  • Amily says:

    Nelle lingue che non sono SVO, l’esercizio di traduzione l’ho provato, ma mi rallenta, confonde e aumenta gli errori in fase di conversazione, fossilizzando dei pattern sbagliati. Andando diretta, con i building blocks, in questi casi mi trovo meglio. Con le lingue simili all’inglese, invece, la traduzione mi aiuta molto ad assimilare velocemente strutture e parole.

    • Luca Lampariello says:

      Ciao Amily,

      anzitutto grazie per il commento 🙂

      ti confesso che è esattamente quello che mi è successo con il giapponese, ma non era la traduzione a rallentarmi in se, quanto il MODO in cui traducevo dal giapponese all’italiano, e cioè usavo lo stesso stile che avevo adottato nelle altre lingue e mi sono appunto accorto che questo approaccio non funziona con una struttura sintattica simile.

      Lo stesso vale ovviamente per altre lingue che non sono SVO.

      Buona giornata e grazie ancora !

      Luca

  • Adou Franklin says:

    Salut Luca, je m’interesse depuis quelques temps a votre methode pour apprendre l’anglais. J’aimerais savoir si les series AWAKE des Temoins de Jehovah sont excellentes pour les traductions. Merci, et j’espere avoir une reponse de vous. Bonne journee!

  • Nathalie Pegoli says:

    Ciao Luca, prima di tutto voglio ringraziarti e complimentarmi con te! Il mio sogno è quello di diventare poliglotta e per me sei una grande fonte di ispirazione!
    Da marzo, sto imparando il tedesco da autodidatta (quarta lingua fino ad ora) e da agosto ho acquistato un libro di grammatica tedesca.
    Il problema è che non mi sembra di riuscire ad assimilarla completamente e a metterla in pratica correttamente in ogni caso.
    Riesco a comunicare abbastanza bene quando mi capita di relazionarmi con dei madrelingua, ma prima di formulare una frase corretta devo fermarmi un attimo a pensare quale sia la giusta declinazione, etc.
    La mia domanda è questa: come posso assimilare la grammatica tedesca in modo efficace e duraturo?
    Grazie in anticipo!

  • Willdabeast says:

    Good stuff Luca! Wish I could make the conference but it’s a little too far. Anyway I have used the translation method with Assimil for French and it’s been highly effective. I do wonder how you’re not supposed to translate concepts and things that don’t have pictorial representation. I’m sure there’s a way but it just seems inefficient to me.

  • Yoko says:

    You are always my inspiration in many ways!
    Thank you for the fascinating topic!

    I have always been wondering why they say that it is better not to use your mother tongue when learning a new language.
    What I myself found from my experience is that using my native tongue is sometimes useful,sometimes not.
    I think that we could be more flexible about using a mother tongue in language learning.It can definitely be an most effective tool.

    My mother tongue is Japanese and second language is English,which are said that so different in their grammar and cultures permeating into them.
    In fact, there is sometimes no exact equivalent each other,it is sometimes impossible or quite difficult to translate in a corresponding way and that way doesn’t work well.
    I think that it depends on what you focus on whether using your native tongue is effective or not.

    When the differences of two languages are too big in the point that I want to focus on,I can not use Japanese as a useful tool because comparison does not work effectively. For example,I don’t compare their pronunciations.

    An one-language-dictionary is useful when I want to ingrain English patterns in my brain (it really takes time!) and more importantly when I want to understand the meaning,images of words with English (because no equivalent in Japanese) while two-language-dictionary is more useful when I try to understand a concept that English words have from my experiences with Japanese,which is advantageous to an adult.

    When the differences of two languages in certain aspects that I want to focus on,are small,comparison between them can work,my native tongue can be an useful tool.

  • Indran F says:

    I’m going to the beach with Maria, because today it is very hot.
    -could you translate this into some more languages and, for each, provide the word-by-word in English so we can see the sentence structure and whatnot?

    • Miller says:

      when this sentence translated to Chinese. it will be as follows:
      我和Maria要去海滩,因为今天太热了。
      but normally we speak in this way:
      太热了,我和Maria准备去海滩(潜台词:我们去避暑)

  • Sam says:

    Really interesting ideas. I have benefited from a lot of your language learning advice. Thank you for continuing to post and inspire us and give us new ideas to try!

    I have heard you talk about this concept before. I tried it once as a part of my study routine, but I found myself getting bored and slightly frustrated with it, because I kept struggling to translate the text back into my L2. Every time I translated it back, it was wrong either in spelling or grammatically, so lost interest. Any advice for combating this?

  • MSantanna says:

    As always, great!
    A question, how about when to decide which content to focus on?
    For example, religion, languages, art, sports and so on? how is one supposed to divide that? Thanks!!!

  • girlinamaze says:

    Great article! I’m learning Italian and I’m currently at the intermediate level. I look forward to trying this method! Thanks for the tips guys!

  • […] Learning a language without using your native language for translation is gaining popularity. Luca Lampariello and Kevin Morehouse, however, make a case that you might actually be shooting yourself in the foot if you don’t use your mother tongue. […]

  • Hey Luca,

    Interesting take on translations as helpful. Maybe the answer is translations can be helpful AND using too many and only translation can be hurtful too.

    I work with intermediate to advanced students of English and I think at that level, it’s time to give up translations. They can be helpful when we just start learning a language and learning about all the grammar differences, but there comes a point where translating (especially translating everything in your head) makes your conversations – or at least your speaking time – s.l.o.w.

    So I would say translations are good as a beginner and then not so good later on as you get more advanced. What do you think?

    • Luca Lampariello says:

      I think you hit the nail on the head Sabrina, I only use translation to START learning a language and I agree that relying on translation too much – especially when you have a good command of the language – can actually go to the detriment of learning. Thanks for the comment and have a fantastic day 🙂 Luca

  • RICKtoSICK10 says:

    i struggle with applying this technique when should i use this?

  • […] when you’re translating into and thus writing in your target language. Exercises in bidirectional translation, translating entire texts from your target language to your first language and back, are an […]

  • Sz says:

    Hi
    Luca,

    I have been practising this very method for years now. It is very
    effective and gratifying. Recently, when I tried to learn
    Lithuanian, I found a way to include sound.

    Zoomplayer allows you to show the combined texts in its window. I
    see something like this while listening:

    http://www.fotos-hochladen.net/view/enmiopinionwh493jvfeb.jpg

    ———————–

    Spanish is a lot easier to learn for me. But I still use the
    retranslation, repetetition drill method. I record pairs of
    sentences with an old Sony mini-disk player (Stand alone, not
    walkman: Sony MDS JE-530. The player has an ” A-B repeat” function
    which can repeat a passage endlessly. Editing any audio recording
    into smaller units is very easy and quick.) With the remote button
    I can hop around in the recorded text at random.

    I have never seen a page about language learning on the Internet
    that is so spot on like yours.

    Sz

  • Brendon says:

    Hey Luca,

    I don’t totally understand the Cognitive Circle image. What you explained is simple enough, but why is there L1 and L2 at the top and bottom of the circle?

    The way I understand it right now is that I should go through and “translate” word-for-word, and then refine that translation to make sense in my L1, then do the opposite? Or am I adding an unnecessary step?

  • Misti says:

    I’ve actually been translating song lyrics, myself—mostly from L2 into very rough L1, for modern Greek, but I’ve done some either way for Spanish…just not for the same song. I’ll have to try that. Thank you. 🙂

  • I work as a Nepali Translator and I do learn something new in my language.

  • Deep Mate says:

    Thanks for the Article. It was amazing ! !

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